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Doctor Who: The War Games (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The War Games originally aired in 1969.

Well, what was happening? Why was it so difficult to move?

It was the Time Lords.

But they’re your own people, aren’t they, Doctor?

Yes, that’s right.

Why did you run away from them in the first place?

What? Well, I was bored.

What do you mean, you were bored?

Well, the Time Lords are an immensely civilised race. We can control our own environment, we can live forever, barring accidents, and we have the secret of space time travel.

Well what’s so wrong in all that?

Well we hardly ever use our great powers. We consent simply to observe and to gather knowledge.

And that wasn’t enough for you?

No, of course not. With a whole galaxy to explore? Millions of planets, eons of time, countless civilisations to meet?

Well, why do they object to you doing all that?

Well, it is a fact, Jamie, that I do tend to get involved with things.

– Jamie, the Doctor and Zoe

The War Games represents the end of the era. It is the last appearance of Jamie as a regular companion. It is the last show featuring Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, although he would return for the occasional guest spot, celebration or charity episode. It was also the last of the series to be shot in black and white. The transition from Troughton to Pertwee would arguably be one of the most dramatic shifts in the history of the show. Not only would the show suddenly be broadcast in colour, and not only would it feature a new lead actor, but it would also have a new focus, grounded on Earth, and with that a new status quo and new rules. The show was only six years old at the time, but the change must have seemed radical to those watching.

The War Games isn’t the perfect episode – it’s too long and too plodding – but it is a lot more entertaining than some of the longer adventures, and it serves as a fond farewell to the “cosmic hobo” interpretation of the Doctor. Indeed, the episode probably seems a great deal harsher than it did in hindsight, with the specifics of regeneration not quite codified, the Doctor’s forced transformation seemed less like a formal execution than it does to modern audiences who watched the Tenth Doctor plead for more time.

The War Games is an effective and fond farewell to not only a particular iteration of the title character, but also a version of the show as a whole.



The common complaint about this ten-episode, four-hour serial is that it is simply too long. Indeed, if one discounts the idea that The Trial of a Timelord is one story, or that Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks combine to tell one twelve-part epic, than The War Games is the longest surviving episode of the show. Only the sadly missing The Daleks’ Master Plan is longer, and we are unfortunately unlikely to see either a restored (or animated) version of that adventure any time soon.

Given that Doctor Who occasionally seems padded telling four-part story (let alone a six- or eight-parter), you can imagine the problems facing a ten-part serial. It’s been noted that the series (particularly the classic series) has a tendency to fall back on the “investigate-capture-escape-recapture” formula to pad out adventures, and that definitely feels like it is the case here. Not only do our lead characters suffer from that repetitive plotting (escaping from one side of “the 1917 zone” to the other, only to be captured again), it happens to the villains as well.

All fired up...

All fired up…

The henchman Von Weich is captured by the resistance and guarded by the less than astute Private Moor. Moor is played by Troughton’s son, but that doesn’t stop the character from being a bit of an idiot. In a subplot that’s ultimately rather pointless, he gives Von Weich back his mind-control monocle, allowing the alien to escape. However, Moor’s stupidity is for nothing, because Von Weich is caught (and killed) in the attempt, creating the impression the writers were simply trying to eat up time.

Even the last episode of the serial, perhaps the one with most significance to the rest of the show, features a fairly pointless escape attempt on the part of the War Lord. He has been captured and tried by the Timelords, only for his men to manage an escape attempt. He kidnaps the Doctor, attempts to hijack the TARDIS. He is, of course, captured again in a matter of minutes and sentenced to non-existence. There are a few examples like this throughout the serial. You could argue that it builds suspense, but the problem is that these moments are used far too often and far too readily.

I have a Hun-ch he's a bad guy...

I have a Hun-ch he’s a bad guy…

Even writer Terrance Dicks has conceded that the episode was plagued with these sorts of problems:

With The War Games, if I remember correctly, what happened was that not one but two script projects collapsed simultaneously. The show was in a tremendous state of chaos. So we came up with the idea of having one, very long serial. We didn’t really know, however, until the end, whether Patrick was going to leave at the end or not. The scripts were written at about the rate of one a day! Malcolm Hulke, who was a very fast touch typist, would sit at the typewriter, and one or the other of us would say a line, and it would appear on the page. In retrospect, I think that the story would benefit from losing about four episodes. The concept of the different time zones, the different wars etc., is good. And some of the cliffhangers were good too. But the plot didn’t actually advance much for several episodes.

I agree with this assessment. Inside this reasonably entertaining ten-part serial is a pretty phenomenal six-part adventure just waiting to be unleashed. Indeed, the length of the serial does offer quite a few benefits and a few strengths that I would hate to lose, even if some of the plotting feels like a conscious attempt to tread water.

"Sh! You'll ruin the disguise!"

“Sh! You’ll ruin the disguise!”

For one thing, the seeding of the mystery in the opening few episodes is quite good. Again, it’s made possible by the tired capture-escape-recapture plotting involving the Doctor, but there’s something strangely compelling about the sinister Mr. Smythe and his mind-control glasses, as well as the fact that the soldiers serving in the war all have memory issues. When the Doctor and his companions stumble across a bunch of angry Romans, things get more intriguing, and the episode does an excellent job peeling back the layers.

Similarly, the structure of the adventure creates the impression of an evil that has a genuine scale. After all, The War Games hinges on a problem so large that the Doctor needs to call the Timelords to bail him out, and that isn’t easily accomplished by giving us a bunch of talking-heads in a control room. Instead, there’s a sense that we are slowly digging deeper into a very serious plot as we uncover those involved. We first meet those at the outside, like Smythe or Von Weisch, and then we pull back to the Security Chief and the War Chief. The War Lord himself doesn’t appear until more than half-way through the serial, even though he is the character driving all this.

Fog of war...

Fog of war…

In fact, even after the War Lord does appear, his somewhat detached nature gives him the air of serious menace. Once we’ve been introduced to him, the plot stays focused on the bickering of the Security Chief and the War Chief, so there’s a sense that he is a more sinister force lurking just in the background, curiously disengaged from this mass-slaughter. It’s an effective way of demonstrating the scale of the plot, and of convincing us how dangerous things really must be.

Of course, all these extra characters exist just to fill space, and there is a definite sense that characters like Smythe and Von Weisch are just place-holders. However, despite the fact that they are a necessary plot contrivance to keep a ten-episode serial going, the script does an excellent job putting them to use. It wisely avoids convincing us that they are major threats. Instead, it’s candid about the infrastructure, a canny way of provoking the audience’s curiosity.

Just in case you forgot this was made during the sixties...

Just in case you forgot this was made during the sixties…

The expanded length also makes room for clever storytelling devices, with the first and last episodes including bookends that create the impression of a production process that was a lot tighter than Dicks’ comments above might suggest. Both the opening and closing instalments see the Doctor convicted by a kangaroo court and sentenced for his crimes. The first trial allows that Doctor to express his feelings of injustice in a manner he would know better than to direct towards the Timelords.

“This is a travesty of justice,” he insists, and you can tell that he feels the same way about the trial in the last part of the serial, even if he’d never say it so directly. He’s clearly frustrated by the court’s refusal to hear evidence, in the same way that the Timelords seem relatively unmoved by his own arguments to them. “Well, if you’re not going to allow them to answer, what is the use?” he asks Smythe, as he finds himself trapped within a Kafka-esque absurdity. The trial at the end is just as much of a farce – although the Timelords adopt the illusion of due process, they really just can’t wait to sentence him. Despite the assurance he could pick his own face, they grow tired of waiting and punish him anyway.

Across the board...

Across the board…

It’s worth noting that this is only the second regeneration to take place in the show, so the rules weren’t quite as firmly tied down and the process hadn’t quite been compared to the death of that particular iteration of the Doctor. Given the tragedy around later regenerations, the sentence of the Timelord court probably seems much harsher than it did originally, as they are not just changing the character’s face, they are effectively killing the Second Doctor. It’s pretty bleak stuff, and it seems much bleaker now than it did back then.

Another advantage of the rather long serial is the fact that allows Troughton to carry the Second Doctor on a prolonged emotional arc. It starts out as a fairly standard adventure – to the point where our leads are giggling as they leave the TARDIS. There’s a sense early on that the Doctor suspects there’s something wrong. He kisses Zoe on the forehead when they are separated, the first time we’ve seen the character do anything like that.

Talk about doing things by the book...

Talk about doing things by the book…

Throughout the episode, Troughton creates a palpable sense that the Doctor is growing increasingly panicked and worried. For example, he notices that the War Lord is using technology quite familiar. “Yes, it’s only a question of overriding the master control,” he explains, hijacking a SIDRAT. “Now, it’s a slightly different design to the TARDIS.” But only slightly. When the War Chief and his men attack, the Doctor assures Jamie, “Don’t worry. These things are impregnable against outside attack.” Jamie seems to cotton on to the similarity, asking, “You mean like the TARDIS?” The Doctor doesn’t respond, but Troughton makes it quite clear that the Doctor has noted the similarity, and makes it clear he’s uneasy about it.

Particularly in the second half of the serial, once it becomes clear what he is dealing with, the Doctor becomes increasingly flustered. At one point, he surrenders, waving a handkerchief. “What are you going to do with us?” he demands. “I won’t have my friends ill-treated, you know.” There’s a note of desperation as he insists, “I am here under a flag of truce. I demand to know what you are going to do with us.” Ultimately, it’s a ruse – and a clever one at that – but it seems clear that the character’s desperation is genuine.

Where's your head at?

Where’s your head at?

Indeed, even his patience seems a bit short. Although he figures out how to de-program the hypnotised soldiers one-at-a-time, Russell is less than impressed. “If you’re going to do them all one by one, it’ll take until doomsday.” The Doctor’s fuse seems a bit short, prompting him to snap back, “Look, Mister Russell, I am doing my best!” Adventures like Tomb of the Cybermen suggested that the Second Doctor was generally more in control than he let on. The War Games shows that control slipping.

The additional space also allows us to get a bit more of a social texture of this world and society than we’d get in a tighter, more focused serial. We get a sense of the scale of the operation and the inherent decay. Watching The War Games, I found myself wondering whether it would have been sustainable even if the Doctor hadn’t directly intervened. Sure, he directly infiltrated their headquarters, but the resistance was clearly growing. A lot of this is padding, but it does flesh out this world.

"Haven't you heard? I'm the new ad-visor!"

“Haven’t you heard? I’m the new ad-visor!”

Then it is a bit of a shame that every non-British member of the rebellion feels like a crude ethnic stereotype. At a meeting, the Russian member proudly declares, “Khorosho! I know that place. Much forest, easy to hide men.” However, it’s the hot-tempered Mexican who feels like the most politically-incorrect of the bunch. “I keeel him!” he vows when he thinks the Doctor has betrayed the group. He’s so stupid and aggressive that he ruins the Doctor’s ruse with the War Lord’s brainwashing device. “Eh? Are you crazy?” he loudly and proudly declares after the Doctor pretends to program him. “You machine is no good! Villar is too strong for you!”

Still, at least there’s a sense of the organisation at work here. The Security Chief’s paranoid concerns about the War Chief are developed enough that they seem credible. (And, indeed, ultimately proof accurate.) His response to the Doctor’s arrival is logical and the fact that he reaches the wrong conclusion makes sense given all the information that the plot had given him at that point in time. Again, this occasionally feels like an attempt to eat up space, but at least it makes sense and adds more to the story.

The game is afoot...

The game is afoot…

We also get some interesting visuals, like the sight of Smythe and Von Weisch playing Risk with real lives:

If my troops make a push here, what resistance can you put up?

Along here we shall have pillboxes, machine gun nests, landmines. You’ll have no chance, but it will be an excellent test of the morale of your humans. Your entire force will be wiped out.

Ah, but I will use my reinforcements to turn your flank… there!

Then it will not be a fair battle.

Perhaps not, but it will be an excellent test of your morale.

Similarly, the image of the SIDRAT transporting soldiers like life-sized action figures is quite arresting, and again contributes to the scale of the adventure.

... and the legion shall be few...

… and the legion shall be few…

I’m half of the mind that the classic Doctor Who looked much better in black-and-white than it ever did in colour. Certainly the special effects actually looked a little less corny with less detail. The production design on The War Games is absolutely splendid. Sure, the sight of a Roman Legion attacking in groups of five doesn’t look as impressive as it might, but the stylised design of the headquarters, the scenes in the trenches and even the old military base all look fantastically designed. I love the spiral on the wall in the mind-control room, it’s so clearly retro chic.

Especially considering the serial’s length, The War Games is notable because it doesn’t really feature any gigantic larger-than-life monsters. Sure, the Yeti, the Cybermen, the Daleks, the Ice Warriors and the… er… Quarks all make an appearance in the last half-hour, but The War Games stands out from a lot of Troughton’s Doctor Who because the evil he faces seems so banal, so calculated, so… for a lack of a better word… human.

Not quite Civil War...

Not quite Civil War…

This lack of monsters is one of the serial’s defining traits, and one that suggests this is perhaps a bit more mature than the storytelling audiences had come to expect from the show. According to The Television Companion, it was even noted by the audience at the time:

The final episode of The War Games attracted the most uniformly positive Audience Research Report for some time. Notwithstanding the story’s epic length, the reaction of those contemporary viewers – roughly two thirds of the sample – who had seen all or most of the ten episodes was said to be ‘decidedly favourable’. Some were admittedly ‘inclined to damn with faint praise’, but the only really negative comment recorded was that children seemed disappointed by the lack of monsters – and even this was balanced by the observation that ‘not a few adult viewers’ considered the story ‘all the better for the absence of “inhuman creatures.”‘

It seems ironic that the last and greatest threat that Troughton’s Dalek-crushing, Cyberman-thwarting, Yeti-stomping Doctor would confront would be something as mundane and as grounded as a dictator waging an eternal war. Perhaps the Doctor really is out of his element here, and the Second Doctor simply isn’t able to deal with something that mundane and that basic. Perhaps the Third Doctor’s contempt for mankind is grounded in the fact that his previous iteration died after adventuring through a collection of war zones plucked from human history.

Lord of War...

Lord of War…

Of course, The War Games is also known for its introduction of the Timelords. It’s the end of the sixth season, and we’ve never really delved that much into the Doctor’s past. In a way, Russell T. Davies’ decision to postpone as much of the mythology as possible in the revived Doctor Who seems grounded in the way that the original show took its time delving into the character’s back story. The time has come for the Doctor to reunite with his people, and it’s a fairly impressive reunion.

Introducing the Timelords, the writers are faced with having to explain why this is the first time that we’ve met them. After all, if these aliens are so powerful, how come the Doctor has never sought their help before? One of the benefits of the absence of Gallifrey in the new series is that the Doctor is completely on his own. “Well,” Jamie asks, speaking for the audience, “why haven’t you asked them for help before?” The Doctor replies, “I’ve never really needed it before, Jamie.” However, that is not the only reason.

Man, I've had nights like that...

Man, I’ve had nights like that…

Here, the writers suggest that the involvement of the Timelords comes at a very high price. When the War Chief discovers the Doctor’s plans, he makes it clear that the cost will be great. “You can’t, unless… Doctor, you mustn’t call them in or it will be the end of us. They’ll show no mercy.” Certainly, his words prove prophetic, as it’s the decision to call for help that leads to his exile on Earth and his regeneration.

It’s appropriate, then, that The War Games serves as the end of this iteration of the anarchic Doctor. inadvertently describing himself in The Pandorica Opens, the Eleventh Doctor repeats the legend of a man who would “just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.” That was Troughton’s Doctor (and some other iterations to boot), and The War Games sees the character managing his most ambitious “tear down” project to date. However, at a cost. In order to truly end this level of suffering, there is a price exacted.

It's not as black and white as it seems...

It’s not as black and white as it seems…

In a cycle of death and rebirth, it’s fitting that The War Games bids farewell to that version of the Doctor. The Second Doctor discovers there’s some evil that he can’t tear down himself, and has to face that reality. It feels strangely appropriate, then, that The War Games is the last adventure with the Second Doctor before he is replaced by arguably the most establishment iteration of the character. Discussing the Pertwee era, Paul Cornell once famously observed that “they exiled the Doctor to Earth and made him a Tory.” It’s not fair, but the Third Doctor seemed a lot less likely to destroy entire social systems than his predecessor, and The War Games feels like a fitting crescendo before that reversal.

Arguably Timelord culture wouldn’t really be developed until Robert Holmes wrote The Deadly Assassin, although appearance before then would paint them in a less-than-favourable light. Here, however, there’s a clear insinuation that the Timelords are a society that has gone stale. Even if the decay and corruption that would be revealed are not firmly evident here, there’s a strong suggestion that Timelord culture has gone stagnant.

In a bit of a fix...

In a bit of a fix…

They certainly don’t represent the cavalry riding to the Doctor’s rescue. They torture the War Lord to exact a confession from him. The Doctor himself seems a little impatient with them, muttering, “No, no, of course, you’re above criticism, aren’t you.” When they boast about their method of dealing with Zoe and Jamie (wiping their memories and sending them home), the Doctor sarcastically concedes that it is “very efficient”, barely hiding his contempt for a culture that feels free to tamper with the memories of another living creature.

As mentioned above, the fact that the Doctor’s regeneration hasn’t quite been defined as akin to death by this point (unlike, say, Planet of the Spiders and Logopolis) means that the Timelords’ punishment of the Doctor might not have seemed as harsh at the time as it does in hindsight. Still, the script is unambiguous about the damage that the Timelords casually do the humans caught in their midst. Early in The War Games, we see Jamie encounter a captured redcoat, only to treat him with compassion and understanding. They even escape together. It’s a sign of how far the young Scotsman has come.

A short fuse...

A short fuse…

In contrast, the final episode reveals the first thing that Jamie does when he is returned to Earth is to try to kill an enemy soldier while he’s reloading his weapon. It’s a very smart way of demonstrating Jamie’s character development early on in the script, only to reveal that it has all been lost at the end. The Doctor might smile, but you get a sense that – like his “very efficient” comment – he’s really just being sarcastic and trying not to provoke his fellow Timelords.

One can sense a very clear influence of The War Games on a lot of what Russell T. Davies would write. For example, the finalé to his ear writing the show would see the Doctor confronting the Timelords once again. The way that he rationed information about the Doctor’s past mirrors that evident in the early years of the show. There are also some plot points here that would become essential attributes of Davies’ relaunch of the series.

Oh, what a lovely war...

Oh, what a lovely war…

For example, the War Chief seems to have provided Timelord technology to his allies that includes what Davies would term “the perception filter.” Repeatedly throughout The War Games, we’re presented with advanced technology and heightened reality that the human characters seem to have difficulty perceiving. The communication device behind Smythe’s painting can’t be seen unless the human characters focus on it.

We also see that the brainwashing device leaves one soldier unable to fully perceive the advanced environment surrounding him. He can’t seem to understand that he’s on another planet, despite the fact that his surroundings are definitely alien. The scientist demonstrating the technology brags, “Objects which are beyond his comprehension, he will not see at all.” That sounds quite familiar, and I can’t help but wonder if Davies was inspired by this serial.

Keep your head...

Keep your head…

The conversations and discussions between the Doctor and the War Chief also seem to evoke the later discussions between the Doctor and the Master in The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Timelords. Like the Master, the War Chief opted to leave his people in order to pursue dreams of conquest, but there’s a more fundamental similarity than that. Both mirror the Doctor quite clearly, and the War Chief even offers a foil to the Doctor’s optimistic view of humanity.

Like Davies’ version of the Master, the War Chief seems to get under the Doctor’s skin by using humanity as a tool in his sinister plans for conquest. While the Master used humanity in an attempt to get under the Doctor’s skin, the War Chief uses humanity because he recognises their innate abilities. While the Doctor sees humanity’s potential and their capacity for good, the War Chief sees just the opposite:

The war games on this planet are simply the means to an end. The aliens intend to conquer the entire galaxy. A thousand inhabited worlds.

Yes, but why choose the people of the Earth?

They are the most suitable recruits for our armies. Man is the most vicious species of all.

Well, that simply isn’t true.

Consider their history. For a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose.

– the Doctor and the War Chief

Indeed, the War Chief offers a pretty effective mirror to the Doctor, abandoning the Timelord philosophy of non-interference. While the Doctor uses his power to help, the War Chief interferes for his own petty gain. Troughton makes the Doctor’s contempt quite clear as he states, “You have given these aliens our science and our knowledge to carry out this disgusting plan.”

Branching out...

Branching out…

Indeed, the two ultimately differ because the Doctor is willing to take responsibility. When things fall apart, the War Chief attempts to flee. The Doctor, in contrast, cannot abandon all the soldiers dislocated in time and space. “We could just go to the landing bay,” the War Chief argues, “order a machine and leave.” Such selfishness is unconscionable to the Doctor, who simply replies, “You could, we can’t.”

Fittingly for his swansong, The War Games is populated with several nice Troughton moments. It’s a shame that so little of his time in the role exists, because his performances are fantastic. We get to see, for the example, the Doctor bluffing his way into a military prison, playing an indignant official with wonderful ease. “Don’t you address me like that, sir!” he demands. “This is disgraceful! I shall make a complaint directly to the Minister himself!”

The first trial of the Timelord...

The first trial of the Timelord…

Similarly, we get a nice moment where the Doctor hijacks a class that he is supposed to be attending as a student and effective goads the teacher into revealing the vital information he needs in order to reverse the brainwashing of the soldiers. It’s a lovely little sequence, and Troughton plays it with a wonderful and disarming charisma. It’s a moment that feels distinctly like Doctor Who, and it’s one that it’s hard to imagine anybody but Troughton pulling off.

The War Games is too long to be a bona fides classic Doctor Who adventure. It’s too padded, and too clumsy in places. However, it also has some fascinating ideas, has some elements that take advantage of the story’s length, and it offers an effective farewell to an entire era of the show. That’s quite an accomplishment, and it makes The War Games a lot more entertaining than it really should be.

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